Nintendo appears to be focusing on changing the way people play games together.
Never count Nintendo out.
The more than 120-year-old Japanese company always seems to manage to surprise and delight both fans and naysayers.
In 2006, the company managed to extricate itself from last place in the video game arms race with the release of the Wii. The best-selling console bucked common wisdom that held that video game machines evolved like computers, primarily through improved graphics and processing power.
Instead, Nintendo focused on changing the way people played games, making it more natural for anyone to pick up a controller and play.
The coming generation of game consoles is shaping up to be one dedicated to blurring the lines between video games and the rest of entertainment. Consoles already allow you to view movies, watch TV, browse the internet and communicate with friends. And it looks like that trend is going to continue ... except maybe not as much with Nintendo's upcoming Wii U console.
While Microsoft and Sony continue to expand the console's utility as a set-top box, Nintendo appears to be focusing on changing the way people play games together.
The Wii U, due out this holiday season, will feature high-definition graphics and the ability to interface with friends online through a "Miiverse" network. It will also support the same motion controllers found in the Wii. The biggest change for the console is the inclusion of the GamePad, a touch-sensitive, tablet-like controller framed with a myriad of buttons, cameras and switches.
It's the GamePad's second screen that Nintendo hopes will help redefine multiplayer gaming.
That GamePad doesn't just offer one player the ability to view the world through a second screen, or to continue gaming even when the television is off; it also offers game makers a chance to completely reexamine how everyone else in a room might interact with a game.
At a recent event in New York, I had a chance to check out a collection of games using the Wii U GamePad. Many of the titles present were traditional video games with a second screen twist; however, a few at the event hinted at the paradigm-shifting potential of the device.
Most subtly, perhaps, was Donkey Kong's Crash Course, one of the mini-games found in upcoming title Nintendo Land. In the game, the player uses the GamePad to navigate through a massive obstacle course, depicted on the second screen. But the audience sees a much larger view of the course on the television and can shout out advice and warnings to the player to try and help.
One of the demos in Game & Wario, another Wii U title packed with an assortment of mini-games, had the player with the GamePad controlling a thief viewed on their touch screen. As that player worked to steal fruit, the audience kept an eye on the television and tried to figure out which of the many characters roaming the town was doing the stealing. Once a handful of fruit had been stolen, the audience members became the gamers, using the touch screen to try and guess who the thief was. While a simple game, it showed how the GamePad can be used to tear down the wall between the participant and the audience of a video game.
"This second screen will create new ways to interact with games by giving different players in a single game different roles, different goals and different perspectives"
"Game & Wario is just one example of that," said Bill Trinen, director and product marketing manager at Nintendo. "In a general sense, the addition of the second screen not only creates new gameplay dynamics but it also means that multiple experiences are possible in the same game at the same time. That means that novice and advanced players can enjoy games together and not be forced to play above or below their skill level."
Trinen says Nintendo believes that the Wii U will help to change the industry.
"The Wii U system and its new GamePad is going to once again change the way we play, and will also change how we interact with entertainment and each other," Trinen said. "The GamePad introduces a second screen to the living room ... This second screen will create new ways to interact with games by giving different players in a single game different roles, different goals and different perspectives, creating new dynamics in multiplayer game play that haven't been possible before. It also allows the game world to extend beyond the borders of the TV screen and can give players a new window into a game world that can completely surround them."
"It will fundamentally change the way we play, browse, share and even watch TV together."
The Wii U expands into this sort of communal gaming by introducing new possibilities for multiplayer games that haven't existed before, Trinen said.
That's what I experienced the first time I played Ubisoft's upcoming survival first-person shooter game, ZombiU.
In the title, players take on the role of a person trying to survive a deadly plague that is turning all of London's inhabitants into zombies. One bite from a zombie kills the player's character, forcing the player to start over with a new character; a character whose first goal is to go and retrieve the backpack from your now-zombified last character.
While the harsh difficulty setting was intriguing, the most interesting thing about ZombiU was unsurprisingly how it used the Wii U's second screen.
Much of the game is played like a shooter, using the controller's twin thumbsticks. But the controller's secondary screen could be used to sweep an area, scanning for enemies or items. That screen was also used to grab items, switch weapons and rummage around through your backpack. But here's the thing: The game never pauses.
While a player is looking down at that second screen, picking through found items, or switching out weapons, the zombies continue to amble toward you.
This new, non-pausing form of gameplay suddenly makes the audience a very important part of the game. I was saved from a fatal bite more than once by an attentive on-looker who spotted a zombie creeping up on me as I hunched over my second screen looking to see what I was carrying. (In the game, my character hunched over too, but they looked down at a backpack or broken crate rather than a second screen.)
But here's the thing: The game never pauses.
The added importance of having a lookout made waiting your turn to play, or even watching a friend play, a new sort of experience, one that felt a bit like playing — instead of just watching — a video game.
The experience reminded me of something Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said back in 2010 when he introduced an oversized version of the DSi portable: One of the inspirations for the larger screen, he said, was so people could gather around a single device to see what was going on, allowing them to play cooperatively.
That intriguing idea was never fully realized on the DSi XL, but it's starting to look like it will be on the Wii U.
Trinen notes that the second screen isn't specifically an extension of that idea, but says that it does share some similarities.
"We are designing games that are fun for both the person playing on the GamePad and anyone who may be watching on the TV," he said. "With Wii, we were able to create new ways to play together and connect people within the living room. We are taking that concept even further with Wii U — in addition to connecting people within the living room, our objective is to connect friends and families across living rooms. By creating completely new ways to play together and supplementing that with a robust online experience we can connect people on a much deeper and more meaningful level."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.